I know we’ve been talking about the Chancellorsville Campaign for a few weeks now, but I came across a letter from the point of view of a soldier who describes his experiences with Meade’s reserves during the battle of Fredericksburg.
While I’m posting the whole letter here, I can’t take credit for the transcript. If you’d like more background on the writer of the letter, the scans of the letter itself, or want to see more letters written by soldiers and civilians during the Civil War, I refer you to Spared & Shared, a blog dedicated to posting and transcribing 19th century letters. I subscribe to them and get new content sent to me pretty much every day. It’s wonderful material and gives so much insight into the attitudes and personal lives of those who lived through history I’m so passionate about.
Without further delay, here’s a letter written by Sgt. Thomas W. Dick (1839-1924) of Co. H, 12th Pennsylvania Reserves (41st Penn. Infantry) to his parents.
Camp Near Belle [Plain] Landing January 8, 1863
As my letters since the battle have been brief and unsatisfactory, I will embrace the present opportunity to give you a detailed account of the affair as near as I can. I believe the last place I wrote from previous to the battle was Brooks Station. On the morning of the 8th December we were ordered in off picket, drew rations, and took up the line of march towards the Rappahannock. It was a bitter cold day and rather discouraging for soldiers, but all were willing to endure the exposure and brave the danger—if we only accomplished our object! But alas we failed!
We marched all day and that night until 10 o’clock. We then encamped in a dense pine thicket, and as there had a skift of snow fallen recently, you may know it was not a very inviting place to spend the night—for if we happened to touch a tree, the snow would come down upon us in a perfect torrent. Nevertheless it served to keep the wind off, and we unpacked our blankets and slept as soundly as if we had been at home in feather beds. [Sgt. John P.] Griffith and I slept together. Our bed consisted of some pine and cedar tops cut fine covered with two gum blankets and a shelter tent and our great coats. This formed the under part of our bed. We had over us two woolen blankets and a gum. Considering the circumstances it was a pretty good bed. We remained there the next day and night and also the day following. On the evening of that day—which was the 10th of the month—we received orders to be ready to march at midnight. Then we gave up all hopes of sleeping that night and began preparation for the march. This was soon accomplished for it requires but little time for Uncle Sam’s boys to make ready to move to any point whatever.
After we had made all necessary preparations, the boys gathered around the campfire to talk about the probable object of the movement—but the conversation assumed rather a serious turn for nearly all came to the conclusion that we would soon be in battle. And we well knew that some one of our number must fall. Yet about 12 o’clock when the Capt. came around with the familiar command, “fall in boys,” they fell in ranks as promptly and marched off as gaily as ever. We marched to the [Rappahannock] river and there received orders to protect the engineer corps while they threw the pontoons across. We could plainly see the rebels lights on the other side, however they made no show of resistance until the bridges were built when the pickets opened fire, which resulted in wounding three or four of the workmen. In fact I think their opposition at this point was a mere feint and our generals permitted themselves to be drawn into the trap. That evening our troops commenced crossing, but our division did not cross until the evening of the following day. We slept that night on the south side of the Rappahannock. Little did I think that that night was the last for poor Griffith on earth. But we know not what a day may bring forth.
The next morning we again moved down toward the enemy and soon the distant sharp report of artillery announced to us the fact that we had found them. Our troops advanced steadily forward under the shot and shell of the enemy. We moved on for some distance and then halted for some time but not long, for as usual the old reserve corpse had to kick up the fight. So we were ordered to charge on the enemy’s works which I think was done in gallant style. We had to advance over a piece of low marshy ground and the rebels were posted in the woods on a range of hills in front of us, thus having all advantage in position. But still we advanced over their rifle pits and had them driven away from their guns, but we had no support and consequently had to fall back.
I think whoever is responsible for this grand movement across the Rappahannock managed it very badly for any person of common sense with no military ability would know that it was impossible to take that position. And the testimony of the different generals goes to show that it lies with Burnsides entirely. Even in his own testimony he assumes the whole responsibility. I think Old Burnie a gallant man and a good military man in his place, but I am afraid he has got too high. I believe with him that McClellan can do more with this army than any other man. No wonder our army is discouraged. We have been slaughtered for nothing. We have always been led to expect great things and nearly always been disappointed. We are all willing to do or to suffer anything for our glorious cause but we are not willing to see our comrades cut down beside us and still accomplish nothing. All we want is good leaders—God-fearing men who will do their duty, for surely the army has done its duty. The people have done theirs, so it must be with our leaders.
I never felt so lonely in my life as I did after the battle [with] the last of my messmates gone. In fact, all the company feel the loss of the three that were killed very deeply.
I received your kind letter by politeness of B. Miller. It was the kind of letter I like to receive. It contained some advice which I shall try and profit by. But it is impossible to get a furlough. No man can get a furlough unless he is sick or wounded and the doctor certifies that it is necessary to save his life. I believe I have given you all the news therefore I will close.
From your affectionate son, — T. W. Dick